Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Noiseless Patient Spider, A" (1868)
Author:
Andriano, Joseph
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

First published in The Broadway Magazine (London, October 1868), this poem was originally the third numbered section of what at first appeared to be a single larger poem, "Whispers of Heavenly Death," which itself later became a section (now clearly consisting of separate poems) of Passage to India (1871). "Spider" was finally incorporated into Leaves of Grass in 1881, still a part of "Whispers," which contained eighteen poems.

The poem's genesis may have been as early as the mid-1850s, when Whitman compared the human quest for knowledge of the spiritual world to a worm on the end of a twig reaching out into the immense vacant space beyond its own little world. The notebook passage stresses the limits of "our boasted knowledge" and the elusive nature of "spiritual spheres" as people attempt "to state them" with tongue or pen (Notebooks 6:2051). By 1862 or 1863, in another notebook entry (Notebooks 2:522–523; 700), the worm had become a spider, and the focus shifted from knowledge or expression of the infinite to homoerotic longing. The Soul, seeking love, is compared to a spider throwing filaments out of itself in attempts to make a connection beyond itself. The "oceans" in this early version of the poem are "latent souls of love . . . pent and unknown." To call the notebook entry a representation of gay cruising seems an exaggeration, but it certainly would have belonged in "Calamus" rather than the more metaphysical "Whispers" if Whitman had not transformed it.

In revision, "Spider" became one of Whitman's most powerful lyrics, a perfect illustration of Ralph Waldo Emerson's dictum that nature is a symbol of spirit. Whitman begins the poem with a description of a creature observed, then relates what he has seen to his own soul. The spider patiently launching forth filaments from itself in an attempt to connect across "the vacant vast surrounding" becomes an emblem for the soul reaching out, not only for love, but for any link with the "not-me." Apostrophizing his own soul ("And you O my soul"), the poet's analogical process is similar to Oliver Wendell Holmes's meditation on "The Chambered Nautilus" (1858), in which an empty mollusk shell inspires the poet to address his own soul, exhorting it to "Build . . . more stately mansions." But while Holmes is content to learn a pious lesson, hinting at the afterlife, Whitman suspends the soul in Pascal's terrifying empty spaces of the infinite—in "measureless oceans of space"—and suspends the reader as well in lines that form an incomplete sentence (the second stanza is a phrase followed by a subordinate clause, several participle phrases, then several subordinate clauses). "Spider" is an expression of hope that the soul will be able to connect (albeit with "ductile anchor" and "gossamer thread") to "the spheres" of the outside world, whether they be other souls or other worlds—or both, since to Whitman a soul is a "kosmos."

Whitman's final revisions of this poem included eliminating the repetition of the word "surrounded" in line 7, substituting the word "detached" to further describe the soul. Paul Diehl has shown how this and most of the punctuation changes from the 1871 to the 1881 version of the poem tend to emphasize the soul's existential isolation and therefore to intensify the soul's drive for connection. Moreover, contrasting the poem with Holmes's, one may vividly see the difference between a traditional and a modern lyric, in terms not merely of form but also of world view: whereas Holmes is strengthened in faith that his soul's final home will be heaven, Whitman is seeking—through the poem itself—to lessen the soul's existential loneliness.

Bibliography

Diehl, Paul. "'A Noiseless Patient Spider': Whitman's Beauty—Blood and Brain." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 6 (1989): 117–132.

Grier, Edward F., ed. Walt Whitman: Notebooks and Unpublished Manuscripts. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.

Krieg, Joann P. "Whitman's Bel Canto Spider." Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 4.4 (1987): 29–31.

White, Fred D. "Whitman's Cosmic Spider." Walt Whitman Review 23 (1977): 85–88.

Whitman, Walt. Notebooks and Unpublished Prose Manuscripts. Ed. Edward F. Grier. 6 vols. New York: New York UP, 1984.


Comments?

Published Works | In Whitman's Hand | Life & Letters | Commentary | Resources | Pictures & Sound

Support the Archive | About the Archive

Distributed under a Creative Commons License. Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price, editors.